In last year's biography Stevie Ray Vaughan, authors Joe Nick Patoski and Bill Crawford relate the story of a young Stevie Ray being heckled by older brother Jimmie. The elder Vaughan was drunk one night, listening to Stevie rehearse and yelling, "You can't play shit." When the generic insult failed to get a rise out of Stevie, Jimmie resorted to real insults. "You sound like fuckin' Robin Trower!" was apparently too grave a dis to ignore, and Stevie jumped off the bandstand and knocked his brother flat with a punch to the face. Trower held no place of honor in the Vaughan brothers' blues iconography.
Maybe that's why Houston blues-rock trio Sunset Heights, perpetually dogged by critics unimpressed with 20-year-old frontman Vince Converse's unapologetic SRV mimicry, chose to lead off its debut album, Texas Tea, with Trower's "Man of the World" -- as a statement of anti-party-line independence from Vaughan's long shadow.
Or maybe not. A loud round of SRV comparisons might be the most common fate, but it's hardly the worst that could befall a young blues-rock power trio fronted by a cowboy/gypsy-clad Stratocaster prodigy, and Converse seems more flattered than annoyed by the parallel. Though he tags Jimi Hendrix as the prime motivator behind his flashy fretboard gymnastics, and though he claims he wasn't introduced to Vaughan's histrionic style -- itself derivative of Hendrix -- until as late as 1986's Live Alive! album, Converse takes the rip-off accusation in stride, almost as a point of pride. "Somebody," he says, "has got to carry the torch."
Sunset Heights -- comprising Converse, bassist Jason "Big Daddy" Youngblood and drummer "Li'l Joe" Frenchwood -- is attempting just that with the release of Texas Tea, first in Germany, then in the States, and the initial returns look promising enough. Texas Tea was quickly named album of the month in the German press, and ZZ Top has been contributing welcome exposure by playing tracks off the album as pre-concert music for its stadium shows on the present Antenna tour. Converse has also been tapped as the only American player to contribute to the forthcoming A Blues Tribute to Peter Green -- honoring the founding member of the original Fleetwood Mac -- on the Viceroy label, which also handles Sunset Heights. As I write, Sunset Heights is on a three-week promotional tour through Europe, where SRV-style guitar slingers are looked upon with more anticipation than skepticism.
The six-string bluster of Texas Tea -- with its squealing sustained notes, gritty bass-string dives and vocally affected blues swagger -- isn't likely to dispel the skeptics who say the band has yet to develop a distinctive style of its own, but it does showcase a driving energy that makes a strong case for the group's continued growth.
Converse, who entered the world of live music through high school saxophone and various skatepunk bands, met Youngblood at Houston's Kempner High School, where the two began jamming together. Converse contributed a blues fluency he credits to his guitar-playing stepfather, and Youngblood brought in his uncle as manager. With the addition of a drummer, the trio played its first gig in a Heights icehouse.
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By 1992, with present drummer Frenchwood in place, Sunset Heights was steadily making the rounds of Texas blues-rock venues, playing energetic sets liberally sprinkled with SRV and Hendrix covers. A year later, the band had collected enough of a following to find themselves voted Best Up-and-Comers in this paper's annual reader's poll, and had developed a tight mutual empathy for the fat, authoritative blues tone of its forebears.
For the Texas Tea debut, Viceroy brought in former Cream lyricist Peter Brown, who worked a spitshine on Sunset's lyrics and contributed an additional verse to the band's cover of Cream's Brown-penned "Politician." The result is a solid sonic bedrock on which to build, and Converse -- a genuinely unaffected kid with a string-bending talent that's yet to be matched by the band's other, still developing attributes -- thinks it could take the band over the hump. "It's been since ZZ Top, really, that Houston's had someone break out. We want to put Houston back on the map."
-- Brad Tyer
Sunset Heights celebrates the release of Texas Tea Saturday, June 25 at the European Tavern and Garden, 3926 Feagan, 868-1084.